bell hooks – Cultural Criticism and Transformation (1997)

Creative Arts BA (Hons), Films, Other Projects, Uncategorized

This is a short film that I found out about through the monthly film club and is available on Kanopy: https://ucreative.kanopy.com/video/bell-hooks-cultural-criticism-transformation

Gloria Jean Watkins, known as bell hooks, is an American academic and social activist. Cultural Criticism and Transformation is a 1997 two-part film that critiques stereotypical portrayals of race, gender and class in popular media and is a strong argument for the power of cultural criticism.

It is an interview-style film that is divided into two parts. Part One is on Cultural Criticism and Part Two is Doing Cultural Criticism. It was made in 1997, so a lot of the references appear quite old now, but the themes and ideas are sadly still relevant today.

Cinema and popular media are incredibly important to people. It is also a very powerful way of getting ideas to lots of people. At the start of the interview, bell hooks talks about her time educating people from different backgrounds. She speaks of how when teaching in Harlem, the students would have the same ability as those she taught in yale but often they lacked the belief to embrace their future. Students from Yale on the other hand had the expectation that they were the best students with bright futures ahead of them; they weren’t any more gifted, they just had the belief. Popular media has the ability to try and break some of these stereotypes. It can cover race, gender, culture, politics in a way that everyone can hear the same message.

There is power in representation. People often want to behave like the images they see don’t mean anything. Hollywood moves can bring the big ideas to people but it is an industry full of white male privilege and we can see that in subtle and not so subtle ways. There is a conscious manipulation of representations. For example, why are villains usually black or voiced by a black actor? However, it isn’t just race, bell hook talks about intersectionality and its importance.

Representation in Media Matters

We often want to think that films are magic and not true reflections on reality, but very intentional choices on the parts of the filmmaker are made about what kinds of images will make a certain impact. We can be deeply moved by a film but still have problems with certain representations.

One example she talks about is the film Smoke from 1995. The director cast a black actor in the role of the thief and always insists there was no reason behind it. However, the book that the movie is based on made no reference at all to the thief’s race. People often don’t want to believe there was any intention behind the casting.

Popular media can dictate to us the issues we are passionate about. One example given is Braveheart which was released in the 90s. Prior to its release nobody outside of Scotland really cared or even knew about Scottish independence, then they saw the film and a lot more people started passionately advocating for independence.

Be an Enlightened Witness

bell hooks asks us throughout to be what she calls an “enlightened witness”. To watch things and question what we are watching in terms of who is being represented and why. Why do we make certain remarks about women when they are performing but would never do the same about men? Why are certain races cast in certain roles? Are people being represented? Are stereotypes being perpetuated?

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